Paul Theroux 1941–
American novelist, travel writer, short story writer, critic, and poet.
Theroux's growing reputation derives from his steady production of highly commended fiction and travel books. An American expatriate himself, Theroux often focuses in his novels and short stories on strangers in strange lands and the resulting cultural conflicts. His travel books are among the best in the genre.
After graduating from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Theroux joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Malawi in eastern Africa as a lecturer in English. He subsequently lived and taught in Uganda and Singapore before settling in England. He still travels extensively. His first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), contains the impressions and insights gained on a four-month train journey through Turkey, Iran, and the Far East. The Old Patagonia Express (1979) recounts his trip by train from his birthplace in Massachusetts down through the tip of South America. His recent excursion around the coast of England added a third travel book, The Kingdom by the Sea (1983).
Much of Theroux's fiction centers on characters whose experience of a foreign culture has disillusioned them, giving them an unfavorable perspective on the values of their own society. The anthropologist of Black House (1974) is reluctant to return to a British village where the inhabitants seem to him more malicious, violent, and petty than those of the tribal societies he grew to respect. Similarly, the Peace Corps volunteer in Girls at Play (1969) and the insurance salesman in Jungle Lovers (1971) are shaken by the discovery that the standards of conduct they set out to dispense are in fact morally inadequate and potentially destructive. Many of the short stories in The Consul's File (1977) and World's End (1980) feature protagonists who gain comparable insights. Displacement, alienation, and the shifting identity experienced by foreigners are related topics in most of Theroux's work. The most developed of Theroux's emigrant characters is Allie Fox, the "epic hero" of his highly acclaimed novel, The Mosquito Coast (1981). This story of an American who, angered by his country's emphasis on materialism, moves his family to South America portrays the romantic American ideal of starting anew. However, although Allie is well intentioned, his actions are intrusive and harmful to the native culture.
Notable novels outside the realm of cultural conflict are Theroux's first novel, Waldo (1967), The Family Arsenal (1976), and Picture Palace (1978). They explore the themes of creativity and the artist's vicarious role as observer and recorder.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)
[Waldo is a] good funny novel. It starts, appropriately enough, with the hero's getting a cream pie flung in his face and ends with his becoming a star cabaret turn, as a sort of Writer in Residence—the Residence being a glass bubble in the middle of a dance floor. While Waldo is inside, pecking away at the typewriter, the subject of his prize article stands outside, reciting the story that made them both rich and famous: "Dying Mother Tells All." Thousands cheer.
Waldo's progress is like some kind of Mod Candide. We see him through college, in a home for delinquent boys, in running fights with his parents, and in bed for weeks on end with an aging, nympomaniac starlet…. His disintegration is made quite literal (all his hair falls out) and it is a pity that, toward the end, the scenes get so grotesque and surreal. We get the fact that there is a scream behind the laughter without the author's turning up the volume.
But there is a lot of wit and laughter in the book, and Mr. Theroux has...
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such a wild flair for dialogue and the vivid scene that, if he is not careful, he may end up, as rich and famous as Waldo, in the glass bubble of a movie or TV studio, turning out scripts. (pp. 117-18)
Roderick Cook, in a review of "Waldo" (copyright © 1967 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of the author), in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 234, No. 1404, May, 1967, pp. 117-18.
[In Paul Theroux's Waldo the hero] is a shadowy, passive young man, who moves from one intensely symbolic site to another until he has turned into a slightly older shadowy, passive young man…. The novel is introduced with a quotation from Tristan Tzara, a founding father of Dadaism, which is an omen of the bizarre turns in the road ahead rather than a clue to where it is leading. The conclusion—"It didn't have anything to do with love"—is as good a conclusion as any to the collection of flashy insights and observations and snatches of overheard conversations that mark Waldo's development. These are presented in an unending procession of flat declarative sentences, most of which are not bad taken one at a time.
A review of "Waldo," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 38, November 11, 1967, p. 246.
Paul Theroux has set his novel [Girls at Play] in East Africa, and the country is every bit as important as the characters. Its effect is pernicious; its principal weapon, dilapidation—both physical and spiritual. The action centres almost exclusively on a girls' school and the women who teach there….
Even in its smaller aspects, the novel is unremittingly depressing. The domestic guerrilla warfare waged between Miss Poole and Heather has not the slightest element of farce about it. Like their endless verbal bitchery, it is singlemindedly cruel and they take a good deal of pleasure in each other's discomfort. The Africans (disliked by most of the whites) are presented either as petty bureaucrats or as oafish, scrawny inhabitants of villages littered with cigarette wrappings and Coca-Cola bottles.
Rape and murder provide the novel with a climax, but they come as no surprise. Indeed, they seem inevitable; and the book's power lies in Mr. Theroux's ability to instil an aura of seediness and decay, and a resultant tension, in which violence is a constant possibility.
A review of "Girls at Play," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3511, June 12, 1969, p. 643.
"Girls at Play" is a horror story—not in the usual sense, but in the way that "King Lear" is a horror story. It is, more precisely, a novel of interlocking horrors; of lonely women exiled from society by their own peculiarities; of an isolated girls' boarding school; of Europeans (with their obsolete convictions about white superiority) in an African land recently emancipated; of the Africans, proud, bitter, tempestuous and full of elemental hatred; of the collision between American goodwill, with its callow certainty that love can conquer primordial violence, and the stupid, sometimes sadistic, loathing with which the British respond to it; and, most of all, the horror of people lost in fear in a world turned upside down by invaders and their alien ideas.
Five schoolteachers—an Afro-Indian, an American girl from the Peace Corps, and three British women who cannot face life in England—find themselves thrown together in an isolated school for African girls in the Kenyan bush….
[Paul Theroux] tells his tale of terror and cruelty with cold detachment dressed in wit and irony, and his cold-bloodedness is so relentless that it becomes in itself a sort of cruelty inflicted on the reader. He is out to instruct us in the ways that life and death can be horrible, and he does so with such persuasiveness that quite trivial details become nightmares….
[The teachers'] common fear of Africa sustains them as a group, but it is not strong enough to prevent them from trying to destroy one another.
Only the American girl, tormented in an endless quest for an earthly Eden where her own silly ideals of peace and the brotherhood of man may be realized, tries to bridge the awful chasms that surround her. She defends the Indian and the Africans and tries to make friends with them. She is sure that, with a little goodwill, everything will turn out happily, but there is no goodwill, and in the end her folly destroys them all, and the school with them.
Her efforts break down the thin crust of inhibitions and ritual courtesies that insulate the whites from each other and from the Africans; her clumsy effort to bring them together releases their murderous hatred of one another. The novel ends, as "Lear" and "Hamlet" end, in an orgy of gore—a murder, two rapes, a catalogue of treacheries, and the suicide of the American. The bloodbath seems excessive, but that is precisely the point. Excess is the core and key of the situation.
The book is very convincing. The punctilious realism of the details, the strange, haunting ubiquity of the African landscape, the plausibility of characters divested of the straitjackets of their own conventional worlds, are lessons in a course in the high cost of sudden social change. Mr. Theroux's intellectual edifice is stunningly logical and eerily lit by the appalling certainty of approaching doom. The horrors are both engrossing and clinging. The reader, dreading tragedy to come, will stay up half the night in avid eagerness for its fulfillment, and then he will have nightmares until he wakes.
Laurence Lafore, "Terror and Cruelty, Dressed in Wit and Irony," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1969, p. 5.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad brilliantly evoked the sense of isolation that white interlopers feel in Africa: the indescribable loneliness and physical languor that eventually bring on moral collapse. In the person of Kurtz, Conrad seems to be saying that Africa is no place for whites unless they have extraordinary strength of will.
In the deceptively titled Girls at Play, Paul Theroux returns to this haunting theme with a vengeance. His people, three white women—teachers in a girls' school in the East African bush—are not extraordinarily strong-willed, but women without men, hapless creatures set in an alien land at a wrong time in history. Today's Africa is for Africans and whites are, at best, tolerated. The women are strangers and have no business being here at all….
Girls at Play has the right feel to it. Yes, Conrad was right and nothing has really changed. Africa does have an imbalance lurking in the bush that is deadly to the Western psyche, and that will corrupt and destroy it.
This novel is well worth reading, perhaps more for its mood than for its story. But that should be more than enough.
Shane Stevens, "Strangers in Africa," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), February 8, 1970, p. 13.
Jungle Lovers invites comparison with Graham Greene. The setting might certainly have been his, the serio-comic situations in which the characters find themselves frequently made me speculate as to whether Greene could have handled them any better. This is a Black—and a black—Comedy. I was reminded forcefully both of The Comedians and Travels with my Aunt, which is not to say that Mr Theroux sets out to imitate either, or that he is as good a novelist as Greene—yet. His use of language is never so cool and masterly, there is the occasional fuzziness in style. But, judged on its own terms, the novel is assured, mature and compassionate, the author has a fine eye for the ludicrous and he gives us a brilliant feeling of the stratification of life—something novelists of the 20th century seem to find harder and harder to do….
Unless one is intimately concerned in them, all the revolutionary struggles in smaller African countries can appear ludicrous but while Mr Theroux pinpoints the truth of this, he goes far beyond it, to the heart of the matter. Mullet [the protagonist] is as convincing a character as I have found in a novel for years; we continue to discover new facets of him as the book unfolds, so that by the end he is like a real person, both truly understood and essentially mysterious. Mr Theroux is a novelist of power and distinction and this is a fine, rich book.
Susan Hill, "Jungle Book," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol, 81, No. 2099, June 11, 1971, p. 815.∗
Paul Theroux's comic and disturbing fifth novel, Jungle Lovers [is] set in the brilliantly, and sometimes maliciously, realized Malawi of today. His fable, with roots in satiric caricature and documentary terror, uses the linguistic complexity to underscore the wavering relationships between lingering British, Africans, and the two American protagonists, a genial insurance salesman, Calvin Mullet, and a tough, often brutal, revolutionary, Marais, the dissolution of whose interlinked ideals forms the central theme of the book….
The fable has a circularity which passes through so many degrees of the chillingly terrible, and so many of the humanly amusing, before it comes full-circle when Marais takes out one of the few policies Calvin sells and makes the as yet unborn son of Calvin and his Black wife his beneficiary before going to his death in the so-called "liberated" area. This clinches the point but has a slightly irritating air of contrivance; and yet it is the same cool, sometimes cold-blooded, control that guarantees the success of so much of the book. The background is mercilessly accurate, with the littered rejects and incongruous assimilations of post-colonial "culture contact" that have their antecedents in the absurd, decaying machinery of Heart of Darkness…. Some are originally observed, some the stock-in-trade of every expatriate reminiscence…. Some seem the throwaways of an irresistible brightness, as when his African trainee tells Calvin that "Thomas Hobbies" [sic] was right: "Life in Africa is nasty, British and short." All in all, though, there is the same brilliance of detail that distinguished this young author's other African novel, Girls at Play.
"New Out of Africa," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3617, June 25, 1971, p. 725.
Paul Theroux has chosen to measure himself against a very tall ghost indeed: Joseph Conrad. Jungle Lovers is an audacious attempt to tell the other half of The Heart of Darkness, to reveal precisely what it was about Africa that drove the humanitarian trader, Kurtz, out of his mind and reduced him to a raving savage with human skulls impaled atop his palisade.
The novel's setting is the Central African peanut republic of Malawi, a country that is in actual fact at least half fictitious—one of those arbitrary creations of European colonialism that bears little relation to any economic, geographical, ethnic, or other observable reality. It is a figment of the imperial imagination that has been converted, by the stroke of a pen and the hoisting of a flag, into a modern political illusion. The place is ideal for Theroux's purposes; he could scarcely have invented a better one. It is a black country with a white past, a present that is both arbitrary and impoverished, and a future that is bleak. Torn by conflicting cultural forces, its population has been reduced to living out a compulsive parody of Anglo-South African civilization…. Yet as Theroux is at some pains to show, this seemingly slavish and degrading mimicry of an alien white culture has less to do with ideas than with things. It is a kind of cargo cult that really works in a sporadic way.
In Theroux's view, to be African is to deal with the particularized and the immediate, whereas to be Western is to be abstract, having to do with words, postures, dogma, and time. Malawi itself is just such a Western abstraction and so for that matter, is anything pertaining to politics in the accepted Western sense. In the African cultural climate, Westerners tend to become abstractions of themselves, types rather than men, like Major Beaglehole, Theroux's best creation, who contrives to scale heights of Britannic fatuity, ignorance, charm, childishness, and decency that have seldom been reached by an Englishman in an American novel. If the Africans are living out a parody of someone else, Beaglehole and his fellow Britons have become parodies of themselves. It is either that or be destroyed; for as Theroux realizes, they are not parodying their weaknesses, but their strengths.
Theroux's protagonists, like Kurtz, are humanitarians; Calvin Mullet, a sincere young boob of an insurance man from Massachusetts, and the Canadian guerrilla, Marais, who leads a small, all-native band in an attempt to bring down the government. Each has come to save the African, Mullet with American insurance, Marais with the Cuban revolution. In the manner of all missionaries, they have come, not to learn, but to teach. Both fail….
Both sociologically and politically, Jungle Lovers is a first-rate performance—informative, colorful, and insightful. As a piece of cross-culture fiction, it is the best thing of its kind to come along since Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah's Fragments, and Paul Theroux is much the better novelist of the two. His portrait of modern Malawi is as good as one could want, and the book deserves a wide readership on the basis of his insights alone. Throughout the book one seems to hear the echoes of Conrad's voice and that most extraordinary of tales, that begins: "And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth."
L. J. Davis, "In One of the Dark Places of the Earth," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), August 8, 1971, p. 8.
I am unfamiliar with Paul Theroux's highly-praised earlier novels, and only wish I could like "Jungle Lovers" more. There is so much that is admirable in the novel, and deeply-felt; it distresses me to have to say that I, for one, found it ultimately unsatisfying. Forced in the ideological hothouse. Even so, "Jungle Lovers" abounds with virtues. It is genuinely perceptive. Mr. Theroux's ear for the absurd, for the nuances of British and African dialogue, is convincing, subtle. He also writes exceedingly well about the taste and feel of tropical Africa.
Put baldly, "Jungle Lovers" is about the folly of preconceived American ideas about Africa. On the one hand, the clumsily capitalist (Africa, the last commercial frontier, candidate for the American way) and, on the other, the presumptuously revolutionary. The ultimate Play-Pen U, for a would-be Che….
[The novel teeters] uneasily between Waugh-like distance and the intensity of Graham Greene. "Jungle Lovers" suffers from double vision, the lack of a consistent viewpoint….
"Jungle Lovers" is filled with incidental delights, some very funny set-pieces. It is also enriched by a clean, ironic prose style and a powerful narrative drive. The novel's architecture is undeniably intelligent, but, alas, the beams show through clearly, the author's hand ever-present. I couldn't believe in the metamorphosis of Mullet from clumsy Babbittry to a character whose perceptions about Africa, though they do his maker credit, rest uneasily on his fragile shoulders. Marais's undoing, I fear, also owes more to ideological geometry than to life. There is too much that is superimposed, too little that flows with inner life.
Mordecai Richler, in a review of "Jungle Lovers," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1971, p. 6.
Travelers, truants and transplants—Paul Theroux's favorite people since the start of his writing career—are the central figures in "World's End," his new collection of stories….
Impressive as much of "World's End" is …, the book's preoccupation with uprootedness does become wearing before the end. In Mr. Theroux's work in longer forms, no single preoccupation ever tyrannizes. A travel jotting in a novel stands adjacent to and competes with, say, a cameo appearance by a celebrity living or dead (Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, Che Guevara, whom you will)—or with a penetrating passage of art criticism, or a witty parody, or a splendid joke about science that one hasn't heard before, or a subtle probe of an artist's mind on the verge of discovering a subject. And all the while, shuttling from interest to interest, entertainment to entertainment, we're immersed (I'm describing "Picture Palace," actually) in a family chronicle extending over generations and having a haunting incestuous relationship at its core. The impression is of brave abundance, a lively mind and tonic improvisatory energy.
But when, as in the short story, space doesn't permit this kind of exuberance, some other kind is needed. Thematic variety is the obvious possibility; yet, to repeat, there's not much of that in "World's End."
Benjamin DeMott, "Englishmen & Americans," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 24, 1980, p. 7.
Paul Theroux's short stories [in World's Fair] avoid … problems of commitment by their comedy and brevity; when he expands in the longer form of 'The Greenest Island' (some 50pp) the attempt at seriousness and psychological interest becomes dogged and unconvincing. His natural gift for place is a means of capitalising on his passion for travel, and the short story with its emphasis on plot and its need for quick and shapely resolution is an ideal form for him. A restlessness of movement testifies to a disinclination to dig deep. A whole vein of comic writing exploits the relishedly superficial, reflecting the tactics rather than the neuroses of life, and Theroux sometimes has a ring of pure Lifemanship, for instance in 'Algebra', a story about an insignificant man making friends with the famous through a policy of reckless lying. He displays a hilarious callousness and a pleasure in showing up a particular world—diplomatic, literary, commercial—in all its fraudulence. Literary life is the most frequent target, for its vacuity and pretension; an American professor steals a poet's worksheets in a bid for fame, and there are other sardonic developments of the International Theme, the hazards and absurdities of British and Americans abroad. In 'White Lies' there is real horror, narrated by a bloodless entomologist, who draws a gloatingly distorted moral. It is immaculately manipulated.
Alan Hollinghurst, "First-Rate," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2588, October 24, 1980, p. 26.∗
One needs energy to keep up with the extraordinary, productive restlessness of Paul Theroux….
He is as busy as a jackdaw in the way he scavenges for forms and styles. In earlier novels he has taken conventional popular molds, like the ghost story (The Black House), the thriller (The Family Arsenal), the celebrity memoir (Picture Palace), and made them over for his own thoroughly original purposes. The geographic locations of his tales now make an almost unbroken ring around the globe. His train journeys (The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express) are best read as freewheeling, impromptu fictions—the adventures of a picaresque hero who happens to bear the same name as his author and who shares his author's chronic cabin fever.
Theroux is 40 now—the most gifted, most prodigal writer of his generation…. He has moved in skips and bounds, never staying long enough in one place for the moss of a mannered style to grow on his writing. Even in the most trivial ways, he ducks classification….
Yet with The Mosquito Coast he has arrived at a temporary summation. This is not just his finest novel so far. It is—in a characteristically hooded way—a novelist's act of self-definition, a midterm appraisal of his own resources. It is a wonderful book, with so many levels to it that it feels bottomless.
In Allie Fox, Theroux has created his first epic hero. If one can imagine an American tradition that takes in Benjamin Franklin, Captain Ahab, Huey Long, and the Reverend Jim Jones, then Allie Fox is its latest, most complete incarnation. (p. 55)
To his wife and children, and to a bedraggled cluster of starving sidekicks in both Americas, Allie Fox, devout atheist, is little short of God Himself. And The Mosquito Coast is the gospel according to his son, Charlie. The novel tells two perfectly interwoven stories. The first is of how Allie Fox leads his little flock up to the precipice of madness and beyond. The second is of how Charlie slowly emerges from the shadow of his father's divinity into the cold, frightening light of skepticism and sorrow. Out of the twin stories, Theroux has made a novel that has the richness, simplicity, and power of myth.
Even in the barest outline, The Mosquito Coast sets up a whole series of suggestive ripples. Jonestown is there, of course: the foul clearing, the loudspeakers in the trees, the piled cadavers, the spools of recording tape. Beyond that, there is the original American story: the stale Old World, the sea crossing, the Indians, the "first Thanksgiving" as Allie Fox himself names it. Then there is a universal fable about the nature of godhead and belief. Finally, and much the most important, there is a tale here about the limits and possibilities of the creative imagination. Allie Fox is very like a novelist. He is an inventor. He makes and populates a world with an artist's totalitarian joy in his creation, bending everything and everyone in it to the requirements of his aesthetic design. At the end, it turns on him and he is literally consumed by it, as vultures tear out the very brains that set the world in motion. Fox's great imaginative enterprise both mirrors and mocks the creations of Theroux the novelist: The overreaching hero and the writer are one and the same man.
I mustn't mislead here. These big themes (and one could hardly imagine bigger ones) are never proclaimed in the novel. They run deep, like subterranean rivers, nourishing the life of the book's surface. For, reading The Mosquito Coast, one is engrossed in a marvelously told realistic story. It is a measure of the obsessive exactitude of Theroux's writing that there is not a page in the book in which one doesn't know the particular color of the sky, the texture of the earth underfoot, the cast of a face, the rhythm of a voice. In simile after simile, these physical details spring from the print…. This is an invented world that one can live in, smell, see, touch, and a style of writing so easy and precise that one reads through it like a transparent pane of glass.
The same loving particularity is what makes Allie Fox such an enthralling creation. Geniuses are notoriously hard to depict, but Fox—a cursed genius if ever there was one—is so solidly done that you can catch the stink of his armpits…. One believes him, too. When he builds his ice machine, or rights a listing ship, his schemes always have the ring of authority and good sense. He is obstreperously plausible. He has a thing or two to teach every reader of this book. And so one finds oneself submitting, like Charlie Fox, to Allie's extraordinary capacity to spellbind and bludgeon.
That is part of Theroux's secret. He has rooted his story deep in the reasonable—in sense impressions that we can all share, in knowledge we can ascertain. All the nuts and bolts are secure. And from that stable platform, the novel is able to take off like a rocket into the empyrean. From the dingy familiarity of a hardware store in Northampton, Massachusetts, to a grotesque and tragic climax in the jungle, Theroux leads the reader cunningly on, step by reasonable step, reaching the exotic by means of the ordinary.
Here, too, the writer and his hero are in collusion. For that, of course, is just what Allie Fox does. (pp. 55-6)
The Honduran hell that is Allie Fox's last act of invention is only a modest magnification of the commonplace social world he leaves behind in Massachusetts. Allie Fox himself is a magnification, no more, of the inventor who made him, Paul Theroux. If one bass-line runs consistently through The Mosquito Coast, it warns that to possess an imagination is to have a very dangerous faculty indeed. It brings one uncomfortably close to being both a god and a madman. (p. 56)
Jonathan Raban, "Theroux's Wonderful, Bottomless Novel," in Saturday Review (© 1982 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 9, No. 2, February, 1982, pp. 55-6.
The Mosquito Coast has already been greeted in England as a denunciation of America's failures, and it may well be so greeted here. Paul Theroux, who lives in England but knows his native America, has surely decried, through his central figure Allie Fox, some of what is said to ail us…. (p. 1)
While indicting our aerosol cheese goop and excessive imports (Allic hates decaying America from both left-and-right-wing viewpoints) what he really hates is the world's imperfections. Maddened, in the jungle, he will cry: "It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is. Fiddle around and find a use for it." What a fine articulation of Americanness from this anti-American character.
And what an excellent way of calling America a Frankenstein's monster, and Allie something of a Frankenstein. For, yes, this surely is a gothic novel…. It is possible that some readers have forgotten, that many haven't read, The Black House and The Family Arsenal. I mention these because each is an exercise in aspects of the gothic—buried sexuality, frightening eruptive violence, labyrinthine settings (Arsenal is brilliant on "cockney" London). Theroux has an affinity for the gothic, which is often available to us as a metaphor for the forbidden—whether in terms of forbidden sexual urges, or lustings after forbidden powers.
And in The Mosquito Coast, where sex is mentioned only with regard to the narrator's hesitant stepping into adolescence—Charlie, the son of Allie Fox, a psychically-battered boy in love with a selfish father, turns 14 in the course of the novel—the gothic elements are very much about power. Instead of a Creature or Mad Scientist pursuing a virginal woman through dark halls, we have a father terrorizing his innocent son with dares, danger, and tests of loyalty.
Allie Fox, handyman and inventor in Massachusetts, usually called Father, takes Mother, Charlie, his younger son Jerry and two even younger twins, and makes his escape from an America he says is disintegrating. In Honduras, wonderfully described—Theroux can describe the feathers off a bird, the leaves off a tree—Allie settles his family in a soggy, itchy Eden. He is going to fail, and we know it. His mission is to carry ice, made in one of his inventions to this hot iceless world. He and Charlie name his machine "Fat Boy." The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was called "Little Boy"; the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was called "Fat Man." Put them all together, and they spell gothic comeuppance.
Early in the novel, Allie's death is also foreshadowed. Charlie dreams of his father's death in a crucifixion, the man later revealed to be a scarecrow. Sure enough, at the novel's end, after Jerry and Charlie have plotted to kill their father, just as Freud told in Moses and Monotheism the primitive Jews plotted to kill their endangerment, father-figure and Oedipal adversary, Allie is by accident killed. As he dies, he cries, "Christ is a scarecrow!" Which is all too well-plotted, symmetrical, and plain neat for a shaggy reader such as I. While I complain, let me add that Mother, who is once or twice an active figure, remains essentially what Theroux wants in a tale of people returning to primitive, idyllic patterns: she is pedagogue, soother, obedient though sometimes caustic helpmate, currently sexless and almost never persuasive as a person in the book.
But The Mosquito Coast is an interesting working-out of gothic patterns. In Father, we have the philosopher-scientist who, since Dr. Faustus (1593), and surely since Frankenstein (1818), has been our character-of-choice for gothic fiction. He wishes to rival God, whose creation he sees as imperfect, or of whose realm he wants too large a share. (pp. 1-2)
The problem with Allie Fox is that he's hypnotic to Mother and Charlie, and the brilliant Dickensian minor characters of this novel (they are its supreme achievements), only because Theroux says he is. He commands no loyalty in us; we cannot see why he does so in the narrator, Charlie. To us he remains a bully, a cruel parent, a mouthpiece who speaks not to the other characters, much of the time, but over their shoulders at us. When his downfall is guiltily mourned by Charlie, we are not saddened. He doesn't serve to remind us of the perils of unlimited ambition. He is not a cautionary figure.
He is a literary invention, and you can smell the furnaces working to cook him up. He is surrounded by fragments of several Graham Greene figures. He is part Herzog in his declarations of middle-aged angst, he is part Henderson the Rain King in his journeying exuberance; he is part Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness; he is a shadow of Lewis Moon in Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord; he strives for the magic of One Hundred Years of Solitude. In a way, he reminds me of the mad Americans at the frontier whom Dickens invented for Martin Chuzzlewit—all the secondary cultural characteristics were got right, and yet they weren't living people: they were abstractions.
Surrounding this abstraction are some first-rate writing, a true professional's ability to move an entire family from New England to Honduran jungles convincingly, and marvelous descriptions of the people and conditions with which the Fox family meets. Discomfort is brilliantly evoked; a child's terror of the father he loves is often moving (the book's best drama, I think). Theroux can write nearly anything smoothly and smartly. Many readers will appreciate Allie's sometimes-funny causticisms about America, and his entanglements in a plot that overwhelms, for me, the unfinished character of Allie himself….
Gothic fiction ought to be tragic fiction. This tragedy is not sufficiently faced by Theroux, who prefers surface, here, to interior exploration. He adopts the form, but not enough substance, of the gothic. When Father is making plans to drag ice through the jungles of Honduras, a lightning bolt actually flashes upon his face as he actually declaims, "You feel a little like God." Theroux might perhaps have trusted us more. (p. 2)
Frederick Busch, "Dr. Faustus in the Jungle," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), February 14, 1982, pp. 1-2.
The Mosquito Coast is a seemingly straightforward adventure story which ends with a splotch of Lord of the Flies-like horror and which trails clouds of dark parable behind it. I think children would like it; the whole novel, which is told by a 13 year old, would enact their fantasies, and they would be agreeably scared by the gruesome end. As for adults, they can enjoy it on a more complex level, since there is an ambiguous interpretive distance between the tale and its young teller. In fact, the novel is made to order for a structuralist analysis of the tension between its story and its narrative commentary, which is to say the contrast between our perspective on the events and that of Charlie Fox, the young narrator.
Like anything by Paul Theroux, moreover The Mosquito Coast is a delight to read. Theroux is a master storyteller…. And he writes uncommonly well. There are wonderfully exotic words here, as well as familiar words in fresh contexts, and metaphors you want to savor. Theroux tries to make the narrative voice that of a 13-year-old, but you have only to compare Charlie Fox's prose persona to Huck Finn's to see how far he fails. Charlie is a touch literary. But if his voice isn't credible, his innocence is, and that is the main thing….
To the adult reader, Allie Fox is a crazed bore and know-it-all, who tells a ship's captain how to sail and the natives how to survive in the jungle (whose every slither and shriek Theroux captures with astonishing ease). But to Charlie, his father is brave, tireless, and inexhaustibly clever, a figure of towering and total authority. After Allie comes a cropper in the jungle, however, a reversal of sympathies takes place, with Charlie starting to see him as fallible, and even pitiable, just as we come to admire the way trouble steels his stubborn will. His failure makes him moving to us, a Lear without his kingdom, and though it shocks his son, it also gives him room to be himself.
Beneath its adventure story surface, The Mosquito Coast has big things on its mind. At home with paradox, it is about civilization as a savage will to dominance (and yet it defends civilization against nature, red in tooth and claw), about order as anarchy, about the admirable energy and malign motives of invention, about fantasy as tyranny and fiction as spurious power. It is about the way fathers hide their real purposes from their sons, and sons hide their wishes from themselves.
The Mosquito Coast is, I think, finally more interesting than affecting, but then I expect its real force is reserved for teenagers. For, professing his innocence every step of the way, Charlie Fox pushes his father aside—this modern Swiss Family Robinson is a displaced dream of parricide. The kids should love it.
Jack Beatty, in a review of "The Mosquito Coast," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 8, February 24, 1982, p. 40.
There is so much to marvel at in The Mosquito Coast—Theroux's orchestration of his story, his marshaling of technological knowledge, the easy authority with which he establishes and exploits the Honduran setting—that I wish I liked it as whole-heartedly as I admire many of its parts. But I found myself from time to time backing away, as though it were a bully with a club coercing my response.
By concentrating so exclusively upon the almighty Father, Theroux leaves little breathing space for the other characters. While Charlie is a sensitive and observant narrator, perceptive beyond his years, he is scarcely allowed a thought that is not centered on his old man. Mother (she has no other name) has hardly any existence at all; she seems not only subservient to the point of extinction but stupid as well. Jerry's rebelliousness toward the novel's end comes as a relief, but until that point he too has hardly existed. While graphically sketched in, the various Creoles, Indians, marauders, and missionaries appear and disappear, leaving no real mark upon the reader. Megalomania, when relentlessly depicted, has a way of using up all the available air.
I am left finally with the sense that The Mosquito Coast is a brilliant display-piece, the latest and most spectacular of Theroux's performances. Perhaps we should think of him as the Paganini of contemporary novelists and stop worrying about the coherence of his authorial identity.
Robert Towers, "Moby-Dad," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 6, April 15, 1982, p. 37.
The title of Paul Theroux's new book [The London Embassy] is rather misleading. The anonymous narrator indeed works at the American Embassy but his work takes him out of that grotesque building in Grosvenor Square and allows him to wander all round London. In fact London at times seems to be the real hero of this collection of short stories. The city is always present. Sometimes it is a rather strange, foreign city—not so much a capital of an Empire but a far off, distant colonial outpost. This is because Mr Theroux is, like his unnamed hero, an American. It is also one of the pleasures of the book, seeing such a familiar city seem somehow strange and foreign.
The London Embassy is a collection of short stories … but it can be read as a novel if one begins at the beginning and carries on. The hero appears in all the stories. It is the same man who narrated Mr Theroux's highly successful The Consul's File…. (p. 601)
[Theroux's] ability to look into the lives of people is what makes The London Embassy so fascinating. The background here is not exotic Asia, as in The Consul's File, but hum-drum, every day London, albeit a London tinged with espionage—the hero is a sort of spy—corruption, and the Brixton Riots.
The author is a New Englander, and although he has lived for many years in London he is still able to look at the city as if it were new and foreign. Some readers may dislike the lack of an exotic setting but it is a far more difficult job to look under your own nose at the ordinary and come up with something different. (p. 602)
Stanley Reynolds, "Passing Theroux," in Punch (© 1982 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 283, No. 7404, October 13, 1982, pp. 601-02.∗
"There is an English dream of a warm summer evening on a branch-line train," writes the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux in one of the many evocative passages in "The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain."
[One] of the challenges that confronted Mr. Theroux in writing about Britain was to penetrate the English dream and find the reality. Another was more practical—how to find a systematic route, for in "choosing a route, one was choosing a subject." And then a marvelous solution presented itself. He would travel around the entire coast clockwise….
[It] may sound monotonous to read about the three-month trip that Mr. Theroux finally made in 1982 by rail, wheel, foot and thumb. After all, a coast is a coast; there's the sea and the land and the people doing whatever they do along a coast. Yet just as the author found that "Every British bulge is different and every mile has its own mood," a reader is continually surprised by what Mr. Theroux turns up along his way.
He copies down unusual graffiti; "Wogs ought to be hit about the head with the utmost severity," he read at St. Ives Station. He thumbnails every sort of unusual character he encountered, from the female tramp in Liverpool who asked him to pull her heavy cart for a bit, to a young man named Fuggle who told him that he'd once dyed his hair purple—"aubergine, actually"—to draw attention to the fact that "deep down:" "I'm just not like other blokes."
He records all manner of amusing and revealing dialogues he overheard….
The book is filled with history, insights, landscape, epiphanies, meditations, celebrations and laments….
[There is a] depressing aspect of reading "The Kingdom by the Sea." Almost everywhere Mr. Theroux went along the coast, he saw poverty, unemployment, retrenchment. The great branch railway system—the machine that had been set down in the garden and left it undefiled—was shutting down. You could no longer "get there from here." England was reverting to its pre-industrial condition and the people seemed to lack the energy or will to do anything about it….
Reading "The Kingdom by the Sea" has many compensations, both practical and inspirational. Mr. Theroux's evocation of northern Scotland is breathtaking. Following his entire route with a good atlas—the book's endpaper maps are unsatisfactory—is an ideal way to get much of Great Britain's geography straight in one's mind. But a reader isn't left with much desire to follow the author's route. On the whole, one prefers to go on dreaming the English dream.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "The Kingdom by the Sea," in The New York Times (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1983, p. C25.